Barolo and Barbaresco: the two-speed rise of Nebbiolo as Italy’s “King of Wines”

A lesson in Piedmont’s history from Produttori’s Aldo Vacca and Gaja’s Gaia Gaja

The history of Piedmont as a fine wine region and the establishment of Nebbiolo as a single varietal wine predates the unification of Italy in 1861 and is intrinsically linked to the part played by the Kingdom of Piedmont in the politics of the land. The rise of Barbaresco was less straightforward than its dominant brother Barolo’s. Who better to learn from about the people and forces that made the region what it is today than Produttori’s Aldo Vacca and Gaja’s Gaia Gaja .

Nebbiolo as Italy’s first single varietal wine

The decision to move away from the generic field blends more typical of wine production in Italy at the time to a single varietal Nebbiolo was the first step towards it gaining prominence. In the 1830s the Marchesi di Barolo married a French aristocrat, Juliette Colbert, who as part of her entourage brought with her a talented French oenologist, Oudar. After experimenting with many French varietals in the region he quickly identified the potential of the indigenous Nebbiolo as a single varietal star.

Oudar started to produce single varietal Nebbiolo on the Marchesi di Barolo’s vineyards and it wasn’t long before the wines gained a reputation amongst the aristocratic classes. The King of Piedmont contacted the Marchesi and his wife, requesting to taste this wine made from just Nebbiolo that everyone was talking about. The King became a huge fan of the wines and it wasn’t long before Juliette was sending 365 barrels of Nebbiolo to King for him and his courts to enjoy throughout the year. From then on, Nebbiolo as a single varietal had began to secure its place in history.

The Establishment Of Barolo

It wasn’t long before the King purchased his own wine estate in Barolo, which now exists under the ownership of Frescobaldi.

The Piedmont Kingdom was the conquering force in the unification of Italy along with the help of the French army that finally conquered the Spanish rule of Sicily and southern Italy and eventually Rome, leaving just the Vatican and the Pope isolated from the rest of the newly declared unified state of Italy in 1861. Amazingly, there were no diplomatic relationship between the Vatican state and the Italian government until Mussolini reached out to them in 1932.

The power of the Piedmont Kingdom and its role in the unification of Italy meant that Barolo retained its status to the elites of Italy and beyond as the premium wine producing region of the newly declared country. Its prominence remained ever since.

The Barolo region became renowned throughout the country and Nebbiolo took its crown as the King of Italian wine. Following the unification Barolo became more and more established with merchants seizing the opportunity to sell this prestigious and unique Italian wine. At this time apart from the noble families (Marchesi Di Barolo, Rinaldi, Bourgogno) all the rest of the Barolo wines were bottled in Alba under merchants’ labels. Alba became a merchants’ hub much like Bordeaux and the wine began to be exported.

Barbaresco: Barolos less fortunate sibling

History is full of cruel twists and, unlike the more established Barolo with its royal seal of approval for much of the 19th and 20th century, the development of Barbaresco was a struggle for survival, despite it today being seen very much as Barolo’s equal. It’s perseverance and eventual rise to fame is in no doubt down to two central figures of the region: Gaja and the Produttori del Barbaresco.

Gaja: from farmers to global fame

The history of Gaja is extraordinary and singular and their global prestige is testament to the foresight of Giovanni Gaja and his son Angelo and French wife Clotide Rey. The Gaja family were not nobility but farmers yet they became the first family to bottle their own wine in Barbaresco in 1859. Barbaresco was an active port town and the family owned a small tavern on the river that the merchants used for transporting their goods. The Gaja family made their own wine which they served from jars at the tavern.

At the time all other growers would sell their grapes to merchants in Alba. Buoyed by the income of selling their own wines at their tavern, Giovanni Gaja decided to bottle and label his best barrels (often a blend of vintages). When Angelo Gaja and his wife Clotilde Rey took over from his father quality came into focus even more. Clotilde especially, who had been a teacher in Montpellier and was seen in the town as rather stern and business-like, had a philosophy of work ethic and running a company that the family carry with them to this day that espouses to work hard, be a skilled professional, inspire others to work for you and make your work known: “fair, savoir fair, savoir fair fair et fair savoir”.

In the 1930s Giovanni, Angelo and Clotilde’s son, started managing the winery. In 1959 a bottle of Renato Ratti Barolo sold for 1,000 lire for the first time, when the average price was about 300 lire. At the time this price was unheard of and was the beginning of Barolo becoming one of the world’s finest and most expensive wines. This was a milestone for Gaja because Giovanni was selling his Barbaresco for 1,200 lire! A ‘mere’ Barbaresco from Gaja even in those early days was outpricing the best wines of Barolo.

Outside of the extraordinary success of Gaja, Barbaresco’s journey as a region was a lot less smooth. Through this period the region remained largely unknown for wine production despite successfully growing Nebbiolo like its neighbour Barolo and being home to the region’s best producer, Gaja.

Produttori del Barbaresco: the dream of a fine wine collective

However, another unique and profound development was taking place in parallel, and proved another force in propelling the region to greatness that was led by the workers of the land rather than nobility. This came in the form of the socialist collective that started to bottle its own wine in Barbaresco under the Produttori del Barbaresco label.

Aldo Vacca, Produttori’s chief winemaker, recounts how a man called Cavazza came to be known as the Father of Barbaresco. He moved to the region when he got a job working as the Director of the Wine School of Alba in 1890. He immediately saw the potential of Barbaresco as a fine wine region and whilst he had no land he knew if he could persuade the small landowners to compile their crops he could make a fine wine that they could bottle and sell themselves rather than sell their crop to the Alba merchants. By 1894 he had managed to persuade five farmers, including Aldo Vacca’s great grandfather, and two landowners to contribute their crops and the cooperative was formed.

At this time, socialism was taking hold in many parts of Europe enabling small landowners to work together to manage their own produce without relying on the aristocratic landowners.

Initially Cavazza believed that Barbaresco should be incorporated as part of the Barolo District but as Barolo by this time was already well established thanks to its aristocratic ties, the Barolo producers had no interest in extending their boundaries. This decision in itself was to have a devastating impact on Barbaresco for the next fifty years.

Cavazzo died in 1913 and after the initial success of the cooperative, the First World War, economic depression and the rise of fascism forced the winery to close in the 1920s and 1930s. Aside from the Gaja family, who managed to push through these trouble times, all farmers started planting other crops that they could sell and sustain themselves on.

It wasn’t until 1954 that the Cooperative project was reborn with the arrival of Father Don Marengo, who on moving to the region heard about the early success of Cavazza and wanted to rekindle this success.

The 1950s saw the industrial boom in Italian cities which saw huge swathes of the countryside deserted as young men and women flocked to the cities for better wages in the automobile and other industries. To encourage people to stay in Barbaresco Don Marengo reopened the cooperative promising any landowners that joined him that they would be given fair and reliable income if they stayed and worked the land.

So Produttori was founded in 1958, and the three founding principles on which it was built have firmly established it as the best cooperative for fine wine production in Italy if not the world.

First, was the decision to focus solely on producing Barbaresco, and not the other wines produced in the region such as Barbera, Dolcetto and Moscato. This was a risky decision, as Aldo Vacca puts it “Barbaresco was a wine with a reputation but without a market”. It was too expensive for every day drinking, but was confined to second choice for special occasions after the more prestigious Barolo. So Produttori had to ensure that they maintained the highest quality to be able to offer a special wine at a fair price. Farmers were encouraged to develop a quality mindset.

The second principle was 100% delivery – they would buy only Nebbiolo and all the Nebbiolo from its farmers. To ensure this, Produttori became the carrier of the DOCG label, rather than the growers – thus controlling the use of the appellation stamp.

Third, was the principle of rewarding quality. From day one, growers were paid more for better quality grapes – with the price being decided by a sophisticated matrix of indicators.

Both Produttori and Gaja’s stories are testament to the power of perseverance and unfaltering pursuit of quality that can elevate and unite simple farmers to world class leaders of fine wine. Meeting the individuals currently at the helm of these historic institutions and speaking about their family’s and region’s histories was eye opening and inspiring. Tasting the sensational wines from both Gaja and Produttori’s 2016 vintages, as well as the recent fantastic 2015s, only underscored the level of quality that the world’s finest Barbaresco can and has achieved. It will be fascinating to see what dizzying heights they can reach in the future.